Maybe It's Time for a New Paradigm, pt.1

LaShawn beat me to the punch, writing about this yesterday. She provides a very nuanced discussion of the case and questions the basis on which it was decided, while not necessarily questioning its outcome. I definitely recommend that you check it out, but before you go, relax your brain so you can really take in what she's saying before you start trying to formulate an opinion. This month is the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed., the case that rendered state-mandated segregation illegal in schools, and by extension just about everywhere else. It was, and still is a landmark decision. At the time it was handed down, separate was necessarily unequal; not just on the basis of outcome, but by intent. In some other places, it was the same story, but there was no overt attempt to make it so; no publicly known overt attempt, at least. Fast forward to 2004, and a lot of writers are commemorating the anniversary. Some stories are about the first Black student to desegrate such-and-such school; I'm sure there will be some stories about Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock 9. Then some other stories look at schools as they are currently and say that they are more segregated now than they were when there was legal segregation. I can't say that I've been reading all the articles, but looking at the titles and the blurbs, I know the general direction they're headed. My problem is this: why is segregation necessarily a bad thing? More often than not, integration is used as a proxy for Black folks having access to quality schools. I know that. And I know that some of the worst schools tend to be concentrated in urban areas, where they service poorer students (in whatever sense of poorer you want to use). Because of that, I suppose integration is an adequate variable to capture those elements. But is integration really an adequate measure of school quality? This is not 1954, 64, or even '74. Before Brown and for some time after, Black folks had no access to political power. Nowadays, we may still be in bad schools, but it's not just because "they" are holding us down. We have plenty of political representation and enough Black folks sit in positions of authority, particularly on the local level, where school politics are really handled, that there's no extra-scholastic reason for the schools to be where they are. Brown was about removing those obstacles that came from without. Now the trouble is from within. I think that in looking at school performance through a racial lens, we miss a whole lot. For one thing, even though I tend to cast a skeptical eye on people who like to talk about how "good" things were before integration, it's inarguable that many Black institutions were much stronger. Black schools frequently did not have all the same material advantages that other schools had, but they had teachers who cared and expected the best from each student. That makes a lot of difference, as does having parents for whom education is of penultimate importance, right behind having a right relationship with God. I'll be the first one to say that the degree of cohesiveness the Black community lost post-integration is significant, but that the increase in political access and power made it worthwhile. (Whether what we're doing with that access and power makes it worthwhile, however, is debatable.) The problem with using integration as a performance indicator is that we're too dispersed for that. Black folks are everywhere. I probably shouldn't be, but when I meet brothers and sisters from places like Kansas or Oklahoma, I'm really impressed. (Still haven't met any Blacks from Idaho, though.) Not only are we dispersed on a national level, were dispersed on a regional level. Even though there may not necessarily be high percentages, there are Black folks in just about every suburb of every major city in the country. There are, in fact, some suburbs with Black majorities. (gasp!) Moreover, physical integration means nothing except that people from different "racial" groups live next to each other. (I put racial in quotes because even though everybody knows what the term means, I think that race as a concept is the color of water—it looks like whatever surrounds it.) It represents a greater opportunity for people of different groups to get together, but that certainly doesn't mean that they will, for any number of reasons. I think that integration is nice, but it's not necessary. People like to be near people with whom they have something in common. Sometimes it's intellectual, sometimes it's athletic, sometimes it's linguistic, sometimes it's racial. I mean, believe it or not, there are some Black people who, having the ability to live anywhere they want, choose to live with other Black folks. That might be a radical thought for some people, but it's true. The same holds true for white folks, although there is a slight difference, because Black folks have never self-segregated in order to withhold power to other groups, as was sometimes the case with white folks. Even bearing that in mind, I don't think the emphasis on integration is valid. Back to schools, I don’t think there's any question that many of the raisin-in-yogurt (where a Black kid looks like a raisin in a cup of yogurt) schools have excellent programs and test scores and goodies like that, but the question shouldn't be "how can we take the kids out there?" The question should be "how can we make the inner-city schools like those?" In this case, I think that race provides a superficial means of looking at a much more serious and complex issue. I mean, if parents thought their kids could get good educations at schools in the city, a healthy percentage of them would probably stay there, reducing the degree of segregation. Lots of people talk about "white flight," when white families began to head to the suburbs as schools began to integrate, but I don't know if that's quite what's going happening now. Quiet is kept, there's been a lot of Black flight too. So what does that mean? It means that, for one thing, schools in cities tend to be bad. Next time (assuming I ever get back to this) we'll see if this tactic of playing it like it's still the 60's is applicable to any other situation (you know it is) and maybe what some appropriate remedies might be.